ANKARA, July 1 (Xinhua) -- Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the nation on Tuesday he will run for president in the upcoming elections next month. Yet his road to the presidency is destined to be an uphill climb.
Erdogan, whose ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) polled at about 45 percent in the local elections in late March, needs to garner more than half of the popular votes in the first round of the presidential elections slated for August 10.
That seems difficult, if not impossible, given that the two major opposition parties have nominated a joint candidate with high caliber, while the third candidate was promoted by a small pro-Kurdish party.
Fragmented votes suggested that it is very likely that no candidate will be cross the 50-percent threshold in the first round, and the outcome of the votes may have to be decided in the run-off elections later next month.
Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a major rival to Erdogan, is jointly nominated by the main opposition Republican People's Party and the Nationalist Movement Party.
Ihsanoglu, former head of the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation, the second largest inter-governmental organization after the UN, enjoys comparative advantage to Erdogan.
"He (Erdogan) won the local elections by polarizing the people, but will the same strategy work in the presidential election as well?" Mumtazer Turkone, political scientist at Fatih University, asked, adding that "The people will elect a president who will serve as a symbol of consensus and conciliation."
Ihsanoglu can also mount formidable opposition to the prime minister, a political Islamist, on his own turf by challenging him on religious grounds in the predominantly conservative Turkish society.
Yet some analysts think that may be a wrong calculation.
"The key reason why the masses still vote for Erdogan is the economic and political stability he has provided while improving the living standards of the country in the last 12 years," Omer Taspinar, a Turkey expert at the Brookings Institution.
"If the economy falters, the support for Erdogan will also vanish," he noted.
However, given that the presidency is no more than a symbolic position in the country, whoever elected does not have as much influence as prime minster, thus voters might not be too concerned about the impact brought about by the change of a head of state.
"This is not an election that would determine the executive body. In other words, stability would not be affected if Erdogan does not win," Turkone warned.
KURDISH VOTES MAY BE DECISIVE
Erdogan has advantage of courting Kurdish voters. His ruling party usually receives half of the Kurdish voters in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast in each election cycle. The rest goes to the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), a political wing of the outlawed Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK).
Erdogan has been trying to win over HDP votes by offering a new legislation package to legalize settlement process he launched with the PKK two years ago. The package came just in the nick of a time before the election campaign period.
Yet, only two days before the deadline for applications to run in August's presidential election, the HDP on Monday nominated co- chairman Selahattin Demirtas as the party's candidate. He is seen as powerful figure in the Kurdish politics.
This means some six to seven percentages of votes will not go to Erdogan in the first round. Perhaps even Kurds who voted for the AKP before may decide to support Demirtas.
"It is a fact that Erdogan reached his maximum support in the local election. He needs to establish a coalition, perhaps with the Kurds, to close the remaining 6 percent gap," Emre Uslu, political analyst, said.
The open agreement between Erdogan and the Kurds may cause a trade-off by alienating more Turkish voters as well. Therefore Erdogan needs to tread carefully.
Erdogan made it no secret that, if elected, he would use all his powers to effectively switch the country from a parliamentary system to a presidential one. It is an ambition he has long been harboring yet was not materialized because of insufficient support in the parliament and among the public. Thus, future prime ministers may clash with Erdogan despite the fact that he or she may be hand-picked by him.
Several precedents in Turkish politics suggest that presidents, who used to serve as party leaders, would lose their political base when they quit premiership. Their parties had also faded from political preeminence.
"He (Erdogan) knows that the August election will also be an existential test for his party," Yavuz Baydar, Turkish analyst, said.
"There is no margin for mistakes in the coming weeks as he contemplates," he added, given that Erdogan faces serious graft allegations and constitutional breaches.
Erdogan may face a resistance from his party if he tries to expand the presidential power at the expense of that of the prime minister.
"There are more uncertainties in his presidency. Efforts to establish a presidential system may change the political system, the parliamentary order and the economic balance," said Turkone.
VYING FOR CONSERVATIVE BASE
Erdogan, who rode on the success of mobilizing the large conservative base in Turkey, has also started to feel the pinch from the breakup of the coalition he helped build amid anti- government protests and graft allegations. And his popularity also suffers a lot, according to some polls.
Ihsanoglu, a conservative figure, has a good chance to acquire some chunk from Erdogan's ruling party supporters.
"Ihsanoglu may capture from three to six percent from voters who supported Erdogan before," Ozer Sancer, the political scientist who runs polling company MetrPoll.
"That is a serious challenge to AKP's support base," he added.
Hizmet movement, a faith-based social group that was inspired by moderate Muslim leader Fethullah Gulen who preaches interfaith and intercultural dialogue, also rejects what they see a polarizing and corrupt politician such as Erdogan.
"For Erdogan, the most significant challenge comes from the Hizmet movement, which directly and effectively appealed to Erdogan's conservative supporters," said Idris Gursoy, political analyst based in Ankara.